Professor William Cronon, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is now in a serious tangle with none other than the state Republican Party, in yet another battle over Scott Walker’s new anti-public employee union law. After Cronon posted a piece on out-of-state think tanks and interest groups that would spur the law, the GOP has responded with an open-records request on Cronon’s own state account e-mails.
On March 15, Cronon posted a blog entry entitled, “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn’t Start Here)”, seeking to focus attention on out of state conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the infamous phone call that Walker had a month ago with blogger Ian Murphy, who posed as Republican financier David Koch.
“I don’t want this to become an endless professorial lecture on the general outlines of American conservatism today, so let me turn to the question at hand: who’s really behind recent Republican legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere?” Cronon wrote. “I’m professionally interested in this question as a historian, and since I can’t bring myself to believe that the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this, I’ve been trying to discover the deeper networks from which this legislation emerged.”
Then on March 17, as Cronon announced in a blog post Thursday, the state Republicans have filed an open-records request — seeking to read his e-mails from his state university account.
The request, which Cronon has posted online, says in part:
Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items:
Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.
To be clear, that list is composed of: The state’s top Republican leaders, Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers who lead the two houses of the legislature; major unions and union leaders Marty Beil and Mary Bell; and the eight Republican state senators who have been targeted by Democrats for recall campaigns.
In response, Cronon has posted a lengthy rebuttal on his own web site. In the post, Cronon states that he has committed no wrongdoing in terms of the use of his state e-mail account — and also saying that it would violate federal law to reveal e-mail conversations with students that have touched upon these subjects.
Cronon also condemns the records request as an assault on his academic freedom, saying in part:
When should we be more cautious about applying such laws to universities?
Answer: When FOIA is used to harass individual faculty members for asking awkward questions, researching unpopular topics, making uncomfortable arguments, or pursuing lines of inquiry that powerful people would prefer to suppress. If that happens, FOIA and the Open Records Law can too easily become tools for silencing legitimate intellectual inquiries and voices of dissent — whether these emanate from the left or the right or (as in my case) the center. It is precisely this fear of intellectual inquiry being stifled by the abuse of state power that has long led scholars and scientists to cherish the phrase “academic freedom” as passionately as most Americans cherish such phrases as “free speech” and “the First Amendment.”
It is chilling indeed to think that the Republican Party of my state has asked to have access to the emails of a lone professor in the hope of finding messages they can use to attack and discredit that professor. It makes me wonder if they have given even the slightest thought to what would happen to the reputation of this state and of its universities if they were to succeed in such an effort.
A request for comment by TPM to the state Republican Party has not yet been returned as of this writing.